Commanders and Kings
People of the Sea
Editor Simon Denison
People of the Sea
From Mesolithic times, western European peoples were united above all by one thing: access to the sea. Barry Cunliffe explains
In 1934 the trawler Muroto, working out of Cardiff, dredged up a 2nd century AD Roman pot while fishing on the Porcupine Bank 250km west of the west coast of Ireland. What the find means we can only guess. Most likely it was lost overboard from a Roman trading vessel blown widely off course, but the possibility remains that it came from a more adventurous voyage of exploration - a failure perhaps about which history is silent.
More than 600 years earlier, a Carthaginian, Himilco, had sailed out of the Mediterranean deep into the Atlantic. After months at sea he found only sluggish, windless waters and clogging seaweed - he may possibly have reached the Sargasso Sea with its tangle of weed and the Doldrums beyond the Trade Winds - but he returned to tell the tale. Both ships' masters will have shared in common the belief that the Ocean was endless but that if they continued sailing west they might encounter islands famous in mythology but unknown in reality.
Our unnamed Roman captain may also have been aware of the hypothesis, common since the 2nd century BC, that the earth was a sphere and therefore it would, at least in theory, have been possible to reach the eastern shores of Asia by sailing west from Europe. But whatever their cognitive geography, the Ocean was a dangerous place to be avoided if possible - except for the coastal corridor, which allowed rapid and often easy communication around the arc of Ocean-facing Europe.
The importance of the Atlantic seaways to the development of European society has not always been fully appreciated. A hundred years ago when the Oxford geographer HJ Mackinder published Britain and the British Seas he presented the Ocean as a barrier to human communication. Yet ten years later one of the students of the same department, OGS Crawford, argued instead for the importance of the Atlantic seaways in the distribution of Early Bronze Age artefacts in the west of Britain.Crawford's 1912 paper in Geographical Journal was a beginning to be followed over the next 60 years by a gallery of famous names - HJ Fleure, ET Leeds, Cyril Fox, Gordon Childe, Glyn Daniel and EG Bowen - all writing from different viewpoints but all convinced of the vital role played by the Ocean fringe in cultural transmissions.
Taking to the sea
Bowen's book Britain and the Western Seaways published in 1972 marked the culmination of this movement, but it came at a time when the mild geographical determinism it proclaimed (ie, that people's lifestyles were determined to some extent by where they lived) was deeply unpopular and archaeological minds were pursuing other fancies. Now 30 years on there is a new awareness of the vital importance of the varied resources which coastal communities commanded - and of the mobility offered by the sea.
At what stage people first began to take to the sea is difficult to say. The earliest log boat at present known comes from the Netherlands and dates to around 7000 BC, placing it firmly in the Mesolithic period. But there is some doubt as to whether craft of this kind could make long journeys on the open sea unless, of course, freeboard (the vertical distance between waterline and deck) was increased by attaching planks, and a greater stability introduced with outriggers or some such device.
This said, Grahame Clark put forward a convincing case some years ago arguing that Mesolithic coastal communities regularly made sea journeys in pursuit of shoals of fish like cod and hake. This kind of maritime mobility was after all little different from the terrestrial mobility of hunter-gatherers in following the herds of migrating animals. Both activities required navigational skills and it could well be argued that it was in the Upper Palaeolithic-Mesolithic period that communities learnt to use celestial phenomena to chart their courses and become aware of the different qualities of the prevailing winds, cloud formations and even wind-borne smells, in building up cognitive maps to enable them to travel more safely through their wider worlds. Indeed, it is only by assuming that sea travel created considerable mobility along the Atlantic seaways that the remarkable similarities in Mesolithic culture across this zone can be easily explained.
Our knowledge of the vessels in use in the prehistoric period is still uncomfortably slight. The log boat tradition, once established in the Mesolithic period, continued well into the Middle Ages. By the Iron Age, it had already reached heights of technical sophistication never to be surpassed, as the Hasholme boat of about 300 BC vividly demonstrates. This massive structure, nearly 13m long and 1.4m broad, was fashioned out of a single oak.
By this time, however, a far more complex plank-built tradition was established - and was already ancient. The earliest of these vessels, the justly famous North Ferriby boat, has recently been dated to about 1900 BC (see News). Others, from Caldicot, Dover and Brigg, show that the tradition was widespread in the British Isles at least until 800 BC. A few centuries later Caesar was describing the sturdy ocean-going ships of the Veneti of Armorica, massively constructed with thick nailed planks, high prowed, and square rigged with sails of rawhide to withstand the Atlantic gales. These vessels lie within a long-lived tradition of north-west Atlantic shipbuilding better known from actual Roman examples.
A third tradition of Atlantic shipbuilding involved light-framed vessels covered with hides. The earliest reference to these is in a Roman poem, Ora Maritima, in a section thought to be quoting from a 6th century BC document describing the ocean-going vessels of north-western Iberia. Hide boats carrying tin from Britain to Gaul are mentioned by Pliny (1st century AD), using earlier sources, and in the currachs of western Ireland we see the same tradition still in use even today.
No hide boat has yet been found but the famous gold model from Broighter, Co. Derry, of a square-rigged vessel with provision for seven rowers and a steersman manning a steering oar to the rear quarter, may well represent just such a vessel from the 1st century BC.
Although reliable evidence of the shipping that plied the Atlantic seaways in the prehistoric period is sparse it is quite clear from the few scraps we have, and from the copious archaeological evidence of contact between maritime countries, that the technical skills of the people, both in shipbuilding and navigation, must have been sufficiently advanced, even at a very early date, to allow voyages in the open sea to have been a normal part of life. We have, I believe, a tendency seriously to underestimate the abilities of our distant ancestors.
Spread of ideas
If we accept that networks of maritime communication along the entire Atlantic façade had developed during the Mesolithic period, then it is easier to understand how the cultural traits of agro-pastoralism, which characterized the subsequent Neolithic way of life, quickly spread from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast of Portugal and from Continental Europe to the British Isles and Ireland.
It is easier, too, to understand the 'megalithic phenomenon' of the Neolithic which has featured large in archaeological writing over the past century or so. Since Colin Renfrew's devastating critique of the Mediterranean-centred view of 'megalithic origins' in the 1960s, and the publication of an increasing number of reliable radiocarbon dates for megalithic tombs along the Atlantic, the awareness has grown that during the 4th millennium BC there developed a belief system, shared from Portugal to Shetland, that involved the construction of megalithic collective tombs and the use, in ritual contexts, of a highly distinctive art.
There is also clear evidence of a deep understanding of celestial phenomena and the determination, in some areas, to align structures to 'capture' them. The great Neolithic tomb of Maes Howe in Orkney, for example, is so built that the setting midwinter sun shines straight down the passage to light the back wall of the chamber.
No one, nowadays, would wish to conjure up visions of 'megalithic missionaries' driven by religious ardour to spread the word among the benighted communities of the Atlantic littoral. It is, however, clear that the concepts behind the belief system originated somewhere along the Atlantic coast, quite possibly in north-western France, in the 5th millennium, and quickly spread along the existing networks of communication to be adopted into local belief systems all along the Atlantic façade. The passage graves of the Tagus region, Brittany, Ireland and Orkney are local manifestations of a knowledge stream that included beliefs and rituals, technical skills of construction, common 'decorative' motifs, and a shared cosmology.
Exactly how these networks of communication worked it is difficult to say but we may suppose that the coastal communities were bound to neighbouring, or sometimes quite distant, peoples in complex socio-economic systems which involved patterns of travel at prescribed times, the ceremonial exchange of gifts, and other economic exchanges that could reasonably be called trade.
The best known example of this from recent times is the Kula Ring, which bound groups of island peoples in the Pacific in cycles of contact governed by complex rules well-understood by all the participants. Some such system would explain how the Atlantic coastal communities interacted and how information, in its broadest sense, came to be shared over considerable distances.
The high point of the megalithic phenomenon came about 3000 BC. Thereafter new factors began to enter into the equation - the most important being an increased demand for raw materials. In some of these the Atlantic zone was particularly well endowed.
By the end of the 3rd millennium tin, copper and gold were being extracted in considerable quantities and distributed through existing networks as well as along new axes of contact extending deep into mainland Europe along the major river valleys. Other items such as daggers made from honey-coloured 'Grand Pressigny' flint from the Loire valley and amber from the North Sea coast of Jutland were also entering the exchange networks.
By this time new belief systems were spreading throughout much of western and central Europe, most readily recognizable in a characteristic burial rite involving single inhumation usually accompanied by a set of artefacts including a beaker-like pot. The rapid spread of this 'Beaker culture', as it used to be called, is probably best explained simply in terms of a new belief system spreading very quickly along the long-established channels of trade and communication. One of these was, of course, the Atlantic seaways along which the concepts of the 'Beaker package' were widely disseminated and locally interpreted from Portugal to Scotland.
Growth of trade
By the end of the 2nd millennium (ie, in the middle of the Late Bronze Age) trade in bronze, and no doubt a wide range of other commodities less visible in the archaeological record, seems to have intensified with each of the coastal regions feeding its own distinctive produce into the flow. Amid the confusing variety of implements and weapons found in the maritime region, certain items of élite gear stand out as common to most areas. Circular shields, long swords and spears were the normal equipment of the warrior but so too were cauldrons, hooks for clawing the hunks of meat out of the stew, and spits for roasting the joint over the fire. These were items appropriate to the feast which would have formed the focus of gatherings hosted by society's leaders.
What the distribution of artefacts shows is that these same social values were adopted throughout the Atlantic zone. Had a warrior from the Algarve sailed to Aberdeenshire he would have found much in local behaviour and equipment that was very familiar.
Until about 800 BC it is highly probable that the Mediterranean and the Atlantic remained largely separate oceans, though there must have been some shipping movements between them, but after about 800 BC all this changed. The occasion was the establishment of a port-of-trade on the islands of Gadir (Roman Gades, modern Cadiz) by Phoenician traders from the ports of Tyre and Sidon on the coast of what is now Lebanon. The initial impetus for this remarkable commercial adventure was the Assyrian demand for large quantities of silver which the Phoenician middle-men obtained for them from the metal-rich region of south-western Iberia.
Gadir was admirably sited to exploit the trading opportunities of the region and once established the traders could venture further, down the African coast to acquire gold and ivory and along the Atlantic shores of Iberia where copper, gold and tin were to be had. The curious, ornate sailing ships of the Phoenicians were soon to become a familiar sight as they explored the Atlantic coastlines beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
Once the Straits were opened up to Mediterranean shipping Gadir became a focus for more adventurous expeditions. Some time in the 5th century the Carthaginian Himilco sailed into the Atlantic but claims to have found nothing after three months' sailing. Later another Carthaginian, Hanno, pushed south along the African coast possibly as far as Cameroon. Both were courageous voyages, but were only the best published of the many that were surely made.
The end of the 4th century saw another remarkable journey - that of Pytheas of Massalia (now Marseille). He probably travelled overland along the Aude - Carcassonne Gap - Garonne - Gironde route to the Atlantic, and then sailed on local shipping to explore the sources of British tin and Jutish amber. In doing so he seems to have circumnavigated Britain and may even have got to Iceland. Returning safely to Massalia, he wrote a book On the Ocean which became quite widely known in the Mediterranean for its strange tales of the mysterious Ocean peoples.
Increasing knowledge of the Atlantic sea routes in the Hellenistic, and later the Roman, world seems to have had little effect on local shipping other than bringing the coasts of Africa and Iberia firmly into the sphere of Mediterranean influence. The north-west, from Armorica northwards, continued much as before and it was probably along the traditional seaways that items of Late Iron Age 'La Tène' art were introduced to Britain and Ireland, there to be copied by innovative local craftsmen intent on introducing their own interpretations and improvements.
The Roman conquest of the West - first Iberia and later Gaul and Britain - brought major changes to the social and economic dynamics of the Atlantic zone. Maritime traffic, of course, continued as a number of shipwrecks bear witness: a vessel carrying Italian wine lost off the southern coast of Armorica, one carrying British lead wrecked on Les Septs Iles off Armorica's north coast, and a vessel with blocks of pitch from western France catching fire and sinking in the harbour of St Peter Port, Guernsey.
But now, with a new system of roads in place and an unaccustomed peace imposed over the recently-conquered Provinces, land transport, by road and river, began to play a dominant role. It was only with the end of the Roman interlude in the 5th century AD that the old sea routes began to come into their own again.
The millennium from AD 500-1500 saw the communities of the Atlantic façade re-establish themselves once more as a dominant force in European development. At the beginning the flow of goods was comparatively meagre, but by the end of the Middle Ages the volume and range of goods moved by sea were enormous, including wine, wool, linen, salt fish, dried fruits and pilgrims - the cargoes offered unlimited variety.
It was familiarity with the Ocean and a technical competence to master it, born of many millennia of tradition, that ensured the readiness of the ships' masters of Spain, Portugal, France and Britain and later Holland to face the Ocean as global explorers - and as the instruments of colonization when at last the challenge came.
Barry Cunliffe is Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University. His books, 'Facing the Ocean' (OUP, £25.00) and 'The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek' (Penguin, £12.99) were both published last year. All images, copyright as credited, are taken from 'Facing the Ocean'.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005